"They don't understand!" is a common phrase that I hear in a number of contexts, and unfortunately it often means conflict isn't far away, either in the rearview mirror or around the corner.
I cringe when I hear this because of all that it entails. It implies that the speaker knows what the other person understands, that it's possible the other person could understand, and that the speaker understands the person they're speaking about. But, really, none of those is true.
We can't possibly understand what another person is experiencing. Each of us has different experiences, training, values, beliefs, and other filters through which we see and interpret the world. No two people, including identical twins who grew up together, can really "understand." We can empathize, though.
Before we can truly empathize, though, we have to have something to empathize with. The best way to gain true empathy, then, is through solid listening skills. Sounds easy, doesn't it? But there's more to listening than just hearing sounds that emit from their mouth. And it starts with you being in an emotional and mental state where you can hear them.
I know we can't always pick the time, especially if something emotional happens right before an appointment. For example, minutes before an important scheduled meeting, I received a call that a close friend had suddenly become ill and was not expected to survive.
In those instances, intensity and surprise of the news, plus the stress from anticipation of the meeting yielded emotions that make it difficult to contain or change in that short time frame. But in general, we can and must choose our own emotional states.
Curiosity is a great state to help with empathy. It gives us a window into the perspective the other person may have, if only because it inspires us to ask questions. And once we ask a question, we're more inclined to listen to the answer. Also, the other person feels heard because of the open receptiveness curiosity generates.
So, take a moment now to remember a time when you were really curious. See what you saw, hear what you heard, and feel the feelings of being completely curious in that moment. Make it real, as if it's a movie and you are on the set, recreating that scene exactly. Get in the habit of being able to go back to that moment each time listening skills are needed.
When it comes to listening and empathy, it's not all about the emotional intelligence we afford others. Sometimes, our self-awareness and the state we choose to present with are strong factors. So, have that be part of your preparation for conversations.
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash